The west’s dumping of migrants on poor countries is a grisly echo of penal transportation

<span>Photograph: Claudia Wiens/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Claudia Wiens/Alamy

Imagine that Britain signs a treaty with France agreeing to take its unwanted migrants for cash payment; that France suggests sending lawyers to this country to ensure the British courts treat deportees properly; and that the French national assembly passes a law declaring Britain to be a safe country for its cast-off migrants.

What do we suppose would be the response of the Rishi Sunaks and James Cleverlys of this world (not to mention the Suella Bravermans, Robert Jenricks and Matthew Goodwins)? There would (rightly) be spitting fury. There would be outraged talk about the loss of British sovereignty and choleric questioning of why France could not deal with its own problems rather than dump them on Britain.

One does not have to imagine such a scenario. It’s already happening, except that, in the real storyline, Britain is playing the role of France and Rwanda that of the UK. And there’s the irony: Britain, like other advanced nations, insists that too great an inflow of migrants and asylum seekers is threatening its sovereignty and shredding control of its borders. Its solution is to devalue the sovereignty and integrity of a weaker nation.

Rwanda is among the least developed countries in the world. Britain’s per capita GDP is almost 50 times as great. As a proportion of its population, Rwanda already hosts three times as many refugees as the UK. Britain has not signed its deportation deal despite Rwanda being so much poorer, but because it is so. Rwanda’s indigence allows Britain to use its economic heft to dump on it those it regards as unwanted.

Just as rich countries dump toxic waste on poor nations, they equally exploit them as places to discard unwanted people

Britain is not alone in this. The EU pays millions of euros to dictators and warlords in north Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa to act as immigration police, hunting down and detaining potential migrants to Europe. To achieve this, the EU is ripping up the sovereignty of African nations, distorting local economies and undermining democracy. US troops and border police are stationed as far away as Kenya, Kazakhstan and the Philippines, in an attempt to stem potential migration to America. Australia has used the islands of Manus and Nauru as dumping grounds for asylum seekers.

Just as rich countries exploit poor nations as places on which to dump toxic waste, they equally exploit them as places in which to discard their unwanted people. It’s the contemporary version of penal transportation.

And yet, for all the hysteria, the number of people claiming asylum in Britain was less last year than it had been 20 years earlier. What has changed is the visibility of undocumented migrants, most now arriving on small boats. Why? Because other routes have been sealed off. The largest single group crossing the Channel are Afghans, fleeing the Taliban but abandoned by the UK.

The real issue is not one of burdensome numbers but the lack of legal routes to claim asylum – and the failure to adequately process claims. Over the past decade the backlog of asylum claims has risen some four times faster than the numbers claiming asylum. The crisis is of the government’s own making.

Against this background, the Rwanda deportation scheme is, to adopt a description reportedly used by the new home secretary, James Cleverly, “batshit”. It’s a particularly apt description of the latest iteration of the plan – the Safety of Rwanda bill.

The new bill declares Rwanda to be a safe country because… well, because it says so. On Wednesday, the women and equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, told parliament that “allowing self-ID… is not government policy”. Except, it would seem, when it comes to insisting that Rwanda is a sound country to which to deport asylum seekers. Then, the government not only allows self-ID but also debars courts and government officials from challenging that certification, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Parliamentary sovereignty may be foundational, but even parliament cannot erase reality.

The point of the Rwanda law is to be performative, a means of deflecting blame for the failures of social policy

Ministers insist that we need such an illiberal, irrational, immoral law to act as a “deterrent” to future asylum seekers. Yet, there is a wealth of evidence that deterrence policies rarely deter. Those who have defied death and captivity, endured mountains and deserts, confronted warlords and militias, and braved the Channel in a tiny boat – do we really imagine that they would say to themselves: “We are not going to begin this journey because James Cleverly might send us to Rwanda”?

The point of the Rwanda law is to be not effective but performative, to allow politicians to be seen acting tough. It is also a propaganda exercise, a means of deflecting blame for failures of social policy from those policies themselves.

This became particularly visible in the debate last week over legal migration. In response to the controversy over a huge rise in net legal migration, Cleverly introduced a package of measures, including raising the earnings threshold for a skilled worker to £38,700 to “stop immigration undercutting the salaries of British workers”. But he exempted from this rule anyone coming on a health and social care visa so that Britain can “continue to bring in the healthcare workers on which our care sector and NHS rely”.

And that gives the game away. If the government wanted to reduce the numbers of foreign workers, it could easily do so by increasing spending on social care to help raise scandalously low wages. That it refuses to do. It is the government that is undercutting the living standards of British workers – and then it has audacity to pin the blame on immigrants.

There is an important debate to be had about the levels of net migration. But that debate should not become a mechanism through which to finger immigrants for the government’s failures.

The most depressing feature of the Rwanda debate has been the degree to which the idea of the mass deportation of asylum seekers has become normalised. The controversy last week was less about the moral scandal that is the Rwanda policy than about whether it should be even harsher. The logic of performative policymaking is the need continually to ratchet up the rhetoric. If we are serious about questions of sovereignty or of the living standards of British workers, our starting point must be to challenge the government narrative on immigration and to call out the immorality of performative policymaking.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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